Spring Cleaning

Spring Cleaning

I came to realize lately that I have accumulated a huge number of online accounts over the years. Social media accounts, forum accounts, online services of every kind. Mobile app accounts, maps, instant messengers, heck even web browsers need an online account these days.

I have well over a hundred online accounts. How on earth did I accumulate all of these?!

We all know the dangers of giving away personal information to online services, even though we’ve become decidedly too comfortable with giving it away. Can you even sign up for a website anymore without it asking for your phone number, address, birth date, or, annoyingly, your mother’s maiden name?

But at least that is data that we decide to give away. Either you enter it into the text box, or you don’t. You create the account, or you don’t. We have an explicit choice.

Today’s online services are not so clear about how they get your data, about what information they collect, or how much of it they have. Services like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and many more, collect massive amounts of information about us every time we interact with the internet. If it requires an online account, it’s probably collecting information about you.

Things like what you’ve searched for, things you’ve purchased or thought about purchasing, and what websites you visit. Who your family and friends are, where you’ve been on vacation, what car you drive, the music you listen to. A meticulous record of everywhere you’ve been since you first owned a cell phone (looking at you, Google Maps). Even things like your age, medical history, dating preferences, and your (not so) private browsing history (wink wink) are all harvested, stored and collated by the corporations behind these services.

It’s unsettling to think about. Your data is out there, spread over thousands of servers across the world, subject to widely varying geopolitical laws, corporate policies, and the good faith of hundreds of thousands of employees to not misuse your information. Not to mention the risk of hacking and data leaks.

And why do corporations collect this data? Marketing.

It’s so they can advertise to you in an extremely precise way, statistically predict what you will buy and show it to you, convince you to sign up for services you never needed, and even to sway your opinions, values and political views. (We might better call marketing what it is: manipulation).

They do it because there is immense profits to be had. Let’s face it, these online services don’t exist because they want to provide a good service (save, perhaps, for non-profits like Wikipedia). They exist because it makes money. And if collecting your personal information to use against you makes money, you’re damn right they are going to do it.

But that’s all old news. Most of us already know this.

Today, there is a new threat to our privacy. AI.

For AI like ChatGPT and Google Bard to work, they need to be trained on massive quantities of data. That data comes from the internet. The internet includes all of your online accounts, every forum or social media post you’ve ever written, your LinkedIn job history, your profile photos, Facebook and Instagram photos, uploaded videos, and anything else you have ever posted on, or uploaded to, the internet. It’s all fair game.

Right now hundreds if not thousands of corporations have bots scouring the internet and scraping up all of this data to be fed into AI tools like chat bots, facial recognition software, photo and video generators, pornography generators, and so much more.

Once they have copies of your data, you no longer have control over it. Let’s say one of these bots scrapes your Instagram profile. It doesn’t matter if you delete your posts, photos, likes or even your whole account. Instagram may delete the information from their servers, but the data scraping companies who have collected that data will hold on to it forever, and will do with it what they please, your privacy be damned.

For one it’s a huge security risk, with AI being used by malicious parties to generate deepfake videos in conference calls to carry out scams. But it’s also a massive violation of personal privacy on an unprecedented scale.

So that brings me to my spring cleaning.

Personally, I don’t see any value in a website keeping around my forum posts from two decades ago, photos from my summer vacation in 2005, or my social media opinions from College. And quite frankly, at this point leaving it on the open internet is a big liability with little to no benefit.

I’ve been tracking down and deleting my online accounts across the internet. The more I delete, the more I am surprised by how many there still are. I am also cleaning up my social media presence. Last year I suspended my Facebook account, and will soon be deleting it for good. I deleted a decade of Reddit posting history. My Instagram account is now private, and I will be cleaning up old posts.

Some cleaning is more difficult. I have historically been a heavy user of Google products, and they are one of the worst corporations for harvesting and abusing user information for profit. I’ve deleted my Google Maps history, and will soon be moving to an open source map service that does not track my location. I’ve deleted my YouTube history, and disabled further collection of data. I’m actively seeking out an alternative to Google Keep that encrypts my notes instead of harvesting their contents to serve me sponsored advertisements. Luckily I don’t use Gmail, and already self-host my email.

I realize this might come off as very “tinfoil hat”, but that’s really not it. I’m not really scared of identity theft or worried about some conspiracy theory. Though the idea of corporations building a profile with my personal information to manipulatively sell me products or sway my opinion does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I just think that my private information should be private, and that corporations don’t need to know anything more about me than what is required to provide their product or service. And even then, they should treat my information with the respect and care that we all deserve. If a business can’t treat me (and my data) with respect, then maybe I shouldn’t be using them after all.

How much of your information is online? Do you know? Is it serving you, or serving a corporation?

Is it time for some spring cleaning?

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